Interview: JT of Famous Last Words

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On a rainy May evening in a back alley in Buffalo, we had a chance to talk with JT Tollas of Michigan-based Post-Hardcore band Famous Last Words.

We’re here with JT Tollas from Famous Last Words. So JT, how are you doing this lovely gloomy evening?

It’s been following us across the country, everywhere we go. I think I’ve seen sun one time this whole tour. It was during our drive, and I yelled “Its gone, we finally got out of it!”. But, as soon as we got to the venue it was cloudy again. No way! We’ve been all over the Midwest, and it’s been constantly raining. We’ve got a leak in the back of the van, and that sucks!

For those who may be unfamiliar with FLW, can you give us a quick rundown of the roots of the band? What would you compare your sound to?

I feel like we’ve developed a quite unique sound, because we do concept records. I feel like we do them differently than others do them. The way we do our concept albums is as if they were straight up Post-Hardcore musicals. The stories are from beginning to end, specific characters and storylines. It’s not a loose concept at all. We need to find a good medium with the lyrics where you’re telling the story but its still vague enough for those who don’t know it’s a story to enjoy.

The band started in 2009, and we’ve been through a bunch of different members. I’m actually the only original member that is still left. We just recently put out our third full-length concept record called The Incubus via Revival Recordings, I think it was half a year ago.

You mentioned you have been through a few lineup changes over the years, but the current lineup has been solid since 2014. How does the current members affect the dynamics of the band?

It’s like any other relationship, you need to find the right people who are willing to put the right amount of passion/effort/work & commitment as you are. Its so easy to go through members. But, we don’t really fight that often. We’ve never gotten into fist fights or anything like that. We all get along very well, and have good work ethics. We all have the same goal, and make sure that we’re doing all that we can do to reach that goal. Obviously, it’s a good dynamic that we’ve got right now.

What’s the music scene like in Petoskey, Michigan? Was it hard for a post-hardcore band to gain a loyal following, or was there already a scene there that was thriving?

When we first started, the local scene was thriving in 2008/2009. Nowadays, I don’t even know if there are many bands in our genre around our town. We live in Northern Michigan, like the tip of the mitten. There are rarely any shows near us. You need to drive 1.5-2 hours to get to a show. I mean, there is some local shows, but not in our genre. It used to be we’d throw a show every other weekend, and we’d have 400+ kids. Now it just doesn’t happen anymore. We don’t play in our hometown, like ever. We’ll play in Detroit, but that’s like 4 hours South of us. It was hard because of that, but when we started touring and making friends with some promoters it started to move us across to different states. Now when we tour, I know most of the venue promoters where we play.

You’re currently on a headlining tour with Canadian Rock Rapper Manafest. Is this your first-time touring with him? What led to this tour lineup?

It was basically two agents: Our agent & their agent decided they wanted to do a cross-market tour. They’re (Manafest) like Christian Rock Rap, which is cool and something that fits for the most part. It’s been an interesting run for sure! We’d never heard of them before, & when we checked them out online we noticed they’d been nominated for a Juno Award (Canadian equivalent to Grammy Awards) up in Canada, which is super impressive! They’re really great guys, it’s been a cool run so far. They’ve been fun to hang out with.

You guys decided to switch from InVogue to Revival in early 2016. What led to that decision? How’s it being a part of Revival?

With InVogue, it was basically that the contract was up. We did the EP and two full-lengths, and that was it. We decided to try & do something a little different. We met up with Shawn Milke, who owns Revival Recordings. We talked to him about doing this concept album, and his band Alesana are big into concept albums. So, it was cool to be able to carry that over to them for this record. We got to do this really cool Special Edition when we did the release, it’s like a DVD book. The cover has this foil on it, and looks all fancy. When you open it up, there is a picture for every single song. They way the lyrics are laid out, it looks like a storybook. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

Your Revival Records debut The Incubus has been out for almost a year now. It’s still early in the album cycle, but what has been the overall vibes you’ve received for this full-length?

It has been very positive. We didn’t really know what to expect, because the subject matter is very sensitive. I always do a ton of research to make sure the characters and situations are portrayed correctly. All in all, it’s been a very positive feedback with the record. We matured the sound, which you have to do if you want to progress. This album we had different writers. Our last two full-lengths our bassist Jesse & I wrote the records together. On this one (The Incubus), he didn’t write. I picked up a lot of the writing responsibilities, and had help from our guitarist Evan who did some writing too. It was new writers, new producer, new label. A lot of “New” to put together. I think we were able to successfully shake things up without losing that Famous Last Words sound.

There were four guest vocals (3 male, 1 female) on The Incubus? This isn’t typical territory for FLW. What lead to so many guest vocalists on the album?

Originally, I knew that our song “Maze In My Mind” that has Emily Piriz, I knew I wanted a female vocalist on the album. The other three (Spencer Sotelo from Periphery, Matt Good from From First to Last, Ricky Armellino from This or the Apocalypse) were basically just hanging out there with our producer Taylor Larson. They were vibing together and really liked what they heard. They were like “Let’s do some vocals”, and we were like “Heck yeah! Let’s do some vocals!”. It was such a cool honor to have them being excited to be on it.

What’s the typical writing process for FLW. Was it the same for “The Incubus” as for previous albums?

The writing process was actually very similar. I’ll figure out the story, from the first song to the last song, and each song is like a bullet point of the story. Basically, like the Cliff Notes in High School. Each song is a cliff note basically, and tells an important part of the story. Once we come up with that, we try to figure out what the vibe of each song needs to be. I visualize the songs, almost like I’m scoring a movie. I’ll see it in my head, and I’ll see the scene of the song play out. That’s when I’ll figure out if it needs to be happy or sad, slow or fast, dark or angry. Once I figure out the vibe, I’ll talk it over with the guys and we’ll start working on the instrumentals. Once we have the instrumentals down, then I’ll start working on the lyrics. And by that time, I pretty much know what has to be said in every section of the song. I just need to find the lyrics to put there to say it the right way. It’s almost like I have a stone, and I’m carving it out. It’s definitely a different process than most people use to write, but I’m happy with the way we do it.

The song order of a concept album is usually intentional. I know you touched on this in the previous question, but what was the though process of the track list for The Incubus?

A lot of bands will go into the studio with 30+ songs, and 12-15 songs will make the final album. We go into the studio with the full record ready. We will typically have pre-production already recorded, so the album is pretty much ready to go. So, there is never a song that is dropped or added, because they’re all already there in the story. We’ve switched the order of the songs, but that’s typically happened before we even make it to the studio. Once we get to the studio, we’ve never had a B-side track. A lot of bands will have B-sides tracks, and when we went to meet with our producer Taylor for the first time, we told him that we do concept albums, and the 12 songs are the ones we’d do. He was like, “Alright”. I like it that way, because you can concentrate on each song to its fullest potential.

So, who have you been listening to lately?

I usually listen to music when I drive. I don’t really listen to music at other times. So busy doing other stuff. I’ll listen to Explosions In The Sky, like really chill stuff when I’m driving. When I’m driving, that’s my thinking time. That’s my time to just let my mind go, and I get a lot of ideas when I’m driving. Listening to something chill, there is no vocals in that band, is very needed and necessary. Oh, there is the new song from Julia Michaels called “Issues”, its like a downbeat song. She’s a ghostwriter for tons of bigger singers, but decided to release the song herself because she felt so close to it. I respect that, it’s a beautiful song! I’ve been jamming that song a bit.

What does the future hold for FLW? Anything exciting coming up in the latter part of 2017?

We’re going on tour with Get Scared, it’ll be a West Coast tour. It’ll be great! We toured with them a few years ago, and they’re awesome dudes!

Awesome! That’s all the questions I’ve got! Thanks for doing this man! Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

Any “famous last words”? Thanks for the support, keep checking in on the social media, keep checking out our music & telling your friends. Keep coming to shows, we love seeing you guys! Hit us up on social media anytime, I try my hardest to respond to everyone & talk to people.

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